THE RATKO RUDIC PARADOX
Dante Dettamanti BS, MS
Coached Stanford University to Eight NCAA Championships
I had the opportunity of working with Coach Rudic as an assistant coach during his first year as the USA National Team Coach from the Fall of 2000 through the summer of 2001, culminating with the FINA World Cup in Fukuoka, Japan in August, 2001. Just in the way of background on Coach Rudic, United States Water Polo hired him to get the men’s team back on the winning track and back into contention for the elusive Olympic gold medal. After winning silver medals in Los Angeles (1984 boycotted Olympics) and 1988 in Seoul, South Korea, the USA slipped to 4th in 1992, 6th in 1996 and 6th in 2000. The USA felt it needed someone like Rudic, who had already won three gold medals with two different countries, Serbia (one as a player) and Italy, to come in and get the men back on the right track.
There is no question that Ratko Rudic is the most successful water polo coach in the history of the sport. Producing Olympic gold medals for three different countries (Serbia, Italy and Croatia) is a feat that has not been achieved by any other water polo coach. At the same time that he has achieved success that no other coach has come close to duplicating, I feel that he is also the person most responsible for the style of game that is being played around the world today.
Even though he did not invent this style of game, Rudic is a product of the Balkan system of play that is played by the former Yugoslavian countries of Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. His success in using this style to win Olympic gold medals has caused other coaches around the world to copy and adopt both his coaching methods, and the style of play. While this style of play, and his coaching methods, have produced winning teams and gold medals, the question is— are these coaching methods and this style of play really what are best for the sport of water polo?
This is the paradox, the inconsistency (if you will) of Ratko Rudic. The coach who has won the most gold Medals has also helped put the sport in jeopardy at the Olympic level. His tremendous success in terms of winning and producing gold medals has unfortunately helped produce a game that is boring to watch and rapidly losing popularity around the world. This static style of vertical game that has evolved from the success of teams like Croatia, Serbia and Hungary on the international stage, is a game that is best suited for the giant players from the Balkan countries situated along the Adriatic Sea.
It is a style of play that Rudic has promoted and had success with; and the rest of the world has followed. It almost guarantees success and domination from those few countries that can muster the big players that are required to play this game. Genetics, in terms of size and height, has become the most important aspect of success in water polo. Size has become more important than speed and quickness.
Somehow, the Balkan countries have gained control of the world of water polo and have imposed a system of play that almost guarantees their success on the international stage. Hungary is the only country outside of the Balkans that can match them in terms of physicality. All of these countries are expert at playing a system that allows them to use giant players to their maximum benefit in terms of winning water polo games. While Hungary, Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro have all had great success in playing this system that suits the players from their countries, it is the success of Ratko Rudic that has done the most to bring this style of play to the forefront of international water polo.
Size has become the most important physical factor for water polo success. Both the Hungarian team that won the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics and the Rudic coached team from Croatia that won the gold in 2012 in London consisted of teams whose players were of average height of 6’6″ and average weight of 230 lbs. Serbia and Montenegro were not far behind. Only three of the 208 players on the 16 teams at the 2012 London Olympics were under six-feet tall. Water polo has become a big man’s game that can only be successfully played by a few select countries in the world.
We need a game that everyone can play. We need a game can be played by all countries in the world; and not just a select few. As long as we play a game where only a few select countries can have success, then water polo will never succeed as a prominent international sport. It is my opinion, as well as many others, that this style is boring to watch and boring to play. It is a static and game with little movement that is dominated by big people from a few countries. Reducing the size of the pool to 25 meters might allow more third-world countries to start playing the game; but it still doesn’t take away the fact that the game is boring and that it takes big bodies to be successful.
Soccer is a good example of great success at the international level. Every country in the world can play the game and be successful. The game is exciting to watch because of the constant movement and motion; and anyone of any size can play the game. Movement skills are more important than size in soccer. The result is that it is the most popular game in the world.
We desperately need a new game; a game of movement and motion that can be played by everyone. Gone are the days when water polo was played with movement. Gone are the great movement players of the past like DiMagistres (Italy), Estiarte (Spain) and Azevedo (USA). It is no longer a game of finesse and skill and tactics and movement and speed and quickness. It is a game of size and brute force.
So again I ask the question—-is the success of coaches like Rudic and teams like Serbia and Croatia been good for the sport? Or is it because of their success and the style of game that is now played around the world that we have a big problem promoting our sport around the world? Water polo has never been one of the most popular sports in the world; but if we keep playing this static style of game; we don’t stand a chance of ever becoming a mainstream sport.
TOURTURE TRAINING—IS IT NECESSARY
While we try and promote the game in other countries by playing a different style game, a game of movement; let’s be sure that we do not promote another product of the Balkan system; long and torturous training sessions. While Rudic is famous for winning the most Olympic gold medals in History; he is also famous for his arduous training sessions (some call them torture) that consist of 8 hours a day of swimming lap after lap in the pool, heavy Olympic style weight lifting sessions, leg work, and skill and tactical sessions. These kinds of training sessions are typical of coaches who are themselves products of the Balkan system. Again, because of the success of Rudic and others like him, coaches from these countries are in high demand around the world. As mentioned above, USA water polo decided to hire Rudic in 2001 to get the USA “back on the winning track”. Did it work and was it worth it?
Following are excerpts from an article written by Mark Zeigler, San Diego Union Tribune on August 15, 2004, about the training regime of the United States Men’s 2004 Olympic Water Polo Team under Coach Ratko. After four years under Rudic, Zeigler wrote this article just prior to the first match of the US team for the Olympic games in Athens, Greece.
HAS CROATIAN COACH’S MERCILESS REGIME PRODUCED A US TEAM THAT WON’T WILT IN THE THIRD QUARTER?
They solemnly emerge from the weight room, blinking in the sunlight, and walk onto the pool deck. It’s 10 a.m. on a Wednesday in June, but it could be a Monday in February or a Thursday in July or practically any other day in the life of the U.S. men’s water polo team. They’ve been here since 9, lifting weights. They jump in the water, tighten their goggles and start swimming the length of the 50-meter pool.
It’s 11 a.m. They’re still swimming. Attendants replace the now-empty Gatorade bottles at the end of each lane. At noon, the rec swimmers show up at the pool in their Speedo suits. The goalkeepers stretch red and yellow markers across the far side of the pool to cordon off a couple of lanes. The rest of the team keeps swimming.
The rec swimmers are gone by 1:15 p.m., and the goalkeepers remove the lane markers. The Gatorade bottles are replaced again. The yellow water polo balls remain locked inside a white wooden box at the end of the pool. The team keeps swimming. At 1:30, the man sitting in a chair with a bushy mustache, sunglasses, a hat, a stopwatch and an orange whistle stands up and motions for them to get out. The players shower, change and leave.
They’re done . . . for the morning. They’ll be back at 5:30 for an hour-long film session, followed by 2 1/2 hours in the pool. If Ratko Rudic, their legendary Croatian coach, is in a good mood, he’ll unlock the wooden box with the balls. If he’s not, they’ll strap on their goggles and swim four more miles.
“Every day,” center Ryan Bailey says, “is the worst day of my life.”
“Let me put it to you this way,” defender Layne Beaubien says. “I talk to God in the pool every day.” Beaubien is not laughing.
Beaubien played at Coronado High and then at Stanford, maybe the most respected high school and college water polo programs in the country. The longest swim workout he’d ever done for water polo was 3,000 meters, or slightly under two miles. That was his yardstick for agony.
Ratko took over as U.S. head coach in 2001, and that first year he had them routinely swim 5,000 meters, or three miles. Beaubien thought the Croatian was nuts. Then he showed up to practice one day and it was 7,000 meters. Then 8,000. Then 10,000. Then 12,000. Then 14,000. One day they did 18,000 meters.
“Guys training for the 1,500 meters in the Olympics don’t even do these kinds of workouts,” Beaubien says. “You don’t need to swim this much for water polo. But it’s all mental. That’s all it is. That’s why he makes us do it. Being able to push yourself when you’re so tired, being able to push yourself to the next level.”
Rudic leans back in a chair in his office and smiles behind the bushy mustache. There’s a sadistic element to his smile, and a prideful, paternal one. Beaubien gets it. He understands. “In Yugoslavia and other Eastern European countries, water polo is your ticket to a better life,” Rudic says. “You have to be very, very tough, because there are a lot of other kids who want to do the same. You have to fight to survive every day. “If you don’t have that kind of environment that makes you tough, you must create one. We must create an environment in training where there is high tension, where I go to the limit of what is possible. It’s the only way.”
So what’s he doing in the United States? You might remember Rudic from the Sydney Olympics. He was coaching Italy and losing in the quarterfinals, and losing his mind. Furious at the calls, he had to be restrained by police from attacking the referees and was dragged off the pool deck. In post-match interviews, he hinted at a grand conspiracy against him by the referees and FINA, the sport’s world governing body. The next day, FINA suspended him for a year for “having brought the sport into disrepute.”
It might be the best thing that ever happened to U.S. water polo. Rudic needed a quiet place to rehabilitate his reputation, a place away from the media glare, a place where people didn’t know the bushy mustache under the cap, a place that provided new challenges and new motivations. And USA Water Polo, which has never won an Olympic gold medal, needed a new men’s national coach. Says federation President Richard Foster: “We figured if you can’t beat him, you hire him.”
Rudic started in January 2001. He took one look at the players and nearly left. “The situation was worse than I expected,” he says. The problem is that water polo in the States is almost exclusively a Southern California sport, with suburban kids from wealthy backgrounds getting scholarships to top universities and then seamlessly transitioning to lucrative careers.
The choice: Spend six-eight hours a day, six days a week in a pool with Rudic barking at you, or make $150,000 a year sitting behind a desk and have a life. “Some were weak and couldn’t do it,” Rudic says.
Rudic didn’t need to study hours of video to figure out the U.S. deficiencies. He already knew them. They were mentally weak. They crumbled under pressure. In the 1984 Olympics, the United States led Rudic-coached Yugoslavia 5-2 late in the third quarter of the championship game. Yugoslavia roared back and took home the gold. Four years later in Seoul, the United States led Yugoslavia 5-2 in the third quarter of the gold-medal match. Same result. Solution: Get tougher. Get fitter. “If a player quits in practice, he will eventually quit in a game,” says Ricardo Azevedo, Tony’s father and one of Rudic’s assistant coaches. “So you push, you push, you push to see how much a player can deal with. It’s better to weed him out now rather than gloss over it and find out in the Olympics that he’s going to quit.”
So you lift weights for an hour, you swim for 3 1/2 hours, you watch film for an hour, and then you start the 2 1/2-hour water polo practice. “It’s mental warfare out there every day,” Bailey told NBCOlympics.com earlier this year. It’s nonstop. He’s always on you . . . … He says, ‘I’ve cut the best players in the world.’ And it’s true. He has actually cut the best players in the world. “You’re either good for the team and you’re with him, or you’re against him.”
They came to San Diego last month for an evening match at La Jolla High against Hungary, the reigning Olympic champion and 2004 favorite. The Hungarians held a practice in the morning – 30 minutes of splashes and giggles. The Americans held one too – an hour of weights, two hours in the pool. “We’ll tell the Hungarian players what we’re doing,” Beaubien says, “and they’ll say, ‘Do you know this is crazy? Do you know? Do you understand this? It is not necessary.'”
But it seems to be working. The American men had the Hungarians scrambling to escape with a win that night and beat them 11-9 in Corona del Mar a few weeks earlier. In May, they took three of four from Greece in Greece. They also handed Russia its first loss in the Moscow pool built for the 1980 Olympics. Last month, USA Water Polo signed Rudic for another four years.
“I just hope it’s all worth it,” Beaubien says. “I honestly believe we have a chance to win the gold medal. I know you’re supposed to say that as an American. But I believe that. I really do.” Ormsby is asked about the brutal Olympic draw and he doesn’t blink. “He’s convinced us,” Ormsby says nonchalantly, “that we can pretty much do anything.”
END OF ARTICLE
So, was all of the torture and agony for four years worth it for the US team at the 2004 Athens Olympics? After all of the weight lifting, swimming, mental torture and agony, did the US team crumble in the 3rd quarter like they used to? Perhaps not in the third quarter; but they certainly crumbled at the Athens games, finishing 7th; the lowest finish for a USA team at the Olympic games in the past 50 years.
What about the teams that they were beating prior to the Olympics, and that were supposed to show the USA was progressing and improving under Rudic’s tutelage? Hungary won the gold medal, Russia won the silver medal, and the Greeks ended up in 4th place. It just goes to show that you can’t make too much of the results before the Olympics.
It probably didn’t help the USA team psychologically that Rudic did not allow them to march in the Olympic games opening ceremonies; because he didn’t want them to get too tired for their first game two days later. After four years of swimming 4-10 miles and practicing 6-8 hours per day; shouldn’t they have been mentally tough enough to handle walking into the opening ceremonies and playing two days later. To most Olympians, taking part in the opening ceremonies is almost as big a deal as the actual event that they compete in. Big mistake by Rudic.
Actually, it was Rudic who crumbled and gave up on the team. After signing a new 4-year contract with US Water Polo just before Athens (this is unheard of in International water polo), he decided to head back home to coach the Croatian National Team; abandoning the players he had put through torture for 4 years.
What happened to the USA team after that? After 2004, under a new coach, the US (with many of the same players) slipped even further, placing 11th in the 2005 World Championships; and then under another new coach placed 9th in the 2007 World Championships, a year and a half before the Beijing Olympics. Finally, under yet another new coach, American Olympic veteran player and Pepperdine University coach Terry Schroeder, the team responded to perhaps a “more gentle approach”, and being allowed to march in the opening ceremonies; and won the silver medal in Beijing in 2008. One of the teams that they beat in Beijing to get to the medal round was Rudic’s new team from Croatia; who ended up in 6th place overall.
Rudic got the last laugh, however, when his Croatian team won the gold medal 4 years later at the 2012 London Olympics; while the aging USA team, again with many of the same players that Rudic coached still on the team, placed a lowly 8th in London. It took 8 years after he left the USA; but Rudic finally, and once again achieved the ultimate Olympic gold medal with Croatia. But at what cost to the sport of water polo?
The reason that I bring up this story about Ratko Rudic and the USA team, is not to ridicule Mr Rudic; because he has achieved what no other coach has ever achieved in the history of the Olympic games, four gold medals in water polo with three different countries, Serbia, Italy and Croatia. Based solely on results, he is the unquestioned greatest water polo coach in history. His knowledge of the skills and tactics of the game are not being questioned here. What is being questioned is the static style of game that is now being played around the world; and the training methods used by coaches around the world; both products of the Ratko Rudic paradox.
You have to ask yourself, is the mental and physical anguish really necessary in order to achieve success in the world of water polo? Is swimming 15,000 meters in practice and training 8 hours a day necessary to play the game of water polo; a game that lasts a little over an hour, in a medium that completely supports the body (buoyancy) and in which the players swim a total of 1200-1500 meters (one-tenth of 15,000 practice meters), of which only about 700-800 meters (half) is of a high intensity, and half at low to moderate intensity?
There is evidence that this system does not do what it is purported to do; and that is to make the players mentally tougher, and to keep then from wilting in the 3rd quarter of important games. The Serbian National Team, a team that has the most physical talent in the world, is a team that has been highly favored to win the last two Olympic Games; and a team that reportedly still uses the “Yugoslavian training system”, failed in the final games of each of the last two Olympics; bringing home 3rd and 4th place finishes instead of the Gold they were favored to win. The Serbian coach was fired after failing to bring home the gold in 2008 in London.
A problem occurs because Rudic has had so much success in winning gold medals, that other coaches around the world at all age levels feel that they are justified in using the same methods of training. They assume that it is this kind of training that is responsible for the success of the teams that Rudic has coached; when in reality there are many other factors involved in his success besides his training methods. The fact is that his knowledge of the game, and his teaching of the skills and tactics of the game to groups of highly motivated and talented athletes, will come through despite the training methods used to condition them. Something is bound to rub off on them after 4 years of 6-8 hour daily training sessions.
Actually it took the Croatians, a team of 6’6″, 230 lb. giants, eight years to win the coveted gold medal after Rudic took over. Word has it that the Croatian players demanded a “lighter” approach to training from Rudic; or they would abandon the team. Other coaches who duplicate these methods on lesser and younger athletes are in for some big problems. These methods did not work on the excellent and more mature athletes on the USA National team in 2004 under Rudic. They certainly won’t work on 14-20 year old kids.
If we want water polo to succeed, we really need to examine what we are doing in this sport. We need to examine the way we play the game and the way that we coach the game. Are we just going to follow the style of play and the coaching methods that have been successful for a few select countries and coaches like Ratko Rudic; or are we going to do what is right for the sport and the rest of the world. Water polo will never succeed unless we start making some rational decisions on what is best for the sport; and not what will allow a few select countries to win gold medals.